Will 2005 be the year of HDTV worldwide?

The number of countries outlining plans for HDTV services is growing
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The HD linear editing suite at pre- and post-production company Films at 59, Bristol, UK, features a Snell & Wilcox HD1012 switcher.

There seems to be renewed optimism that this time HDTV will seize the public imagination, after a series of false starts over the years. However, there's a good chance it won't be broadcasters driving the demand; rather, it will be consumers.

The increasing popularity and falling prices of flat-panel displays is one reason. A large percentage of these displays sold in 2005 will be HD-capable. Consumer magazines already are advising their customers to buy only those displays that can guarantee they're “HD ready.” HD content for the displays is likely to come first via HD DVDs, whichever of the two competing systems wins the consumer battle.

There's a fear amongst broadcasters that consumers, once they get HDTV from DVDs, will compare broadcast TV unfavorably, which is fueling an urgent interest by broadcasters to work out how they can move to HD without bankrupting their current businesses.

Outside Europe, the number of countries outlining plans for HDTV services is growing. Japan, the USA and Australia are established, but China is planning to launch HD to coincide with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and Brazil has announced its intention to move to HD.

In Europe, the Europe1080 service began at the beginning of 2004 with two HD channels over the Astra satellite. The German pay channel Premiere is planning to launch HD in late 2005, and the UK's BSkyB has announced a firm intention to begin HDTV services using Astra in 2006. There are also plans to launch HDTV in France in the near future.

At IBC2004, there was a big debate over which format would be best for HDTV in Europe, with particular reference to terrestrial broadcasters. An EBU paper suggested the primary concern should be a move away from interlace to progressive scanning, to retain quality when broadcasting to progressive flat-panel displays. The most cost-effective option for Europe's broadcasters could be 720p/50. 1080p would be ideal, but it is deemed at the time as too expensive.

Shown here are the music control room (top) and the video control room for the HD studio at The Hospital, a multi-purpose media space in London’s Covent Garden district.

It now emerges that 1080p for European terrestrial transmission is to come under serious consideration as a European project begins to study the feasibility of moving to 1080p. This European Commission-backed project will involve some 30 partners — broadcasters, manufacturers and academic institutions.

The timescale for 1080p to begin would probably be between 2008 and 2012. So, the question remains whether broadcasters need to begin HDTV a lot earlier than that to meet the competition from HD DVDs.

It is interesting that Sky has decided to transmit from 2006 using two formats — 720p and 1080i — to better suit different program material. It is not clear yet the mix of programming that Sky will have in its HD services, but sport and movies must be front-runners, and so could other services such as Discovery HD. The Discovery Channel has said it is keen to begin HD services in Europe, and it would make sense to join Sky's planned service.

When it comes to HD production, broadcasters are already making their choices. The requirements of co-producers in the USA, Japan and elsewhere for HD material has meant programming destined for an international market is increasingly being made in HD-compatible formats.

The BBC has gone so far as to decide to switch all its production to HD by 2010. The benefits of such a move were illustrated by BBC Resources head of capital development Andy King at the RTS seminar on HD in December 2003. The BBC has embarked on a major natural history project due to screen in 2006, “Planet Earth.” This will comprise 11 one-hour episodes, and it's all being shot in HD in a co-production that includes NHK and Discovery, both of whom insisted on HD. According to King, the decision to shoot HD opens up a whole series of further markets, which has made possible a significant increase in program budgets. The 11-hour project will cost E30 million to produce; if it had been shot in SD, the budget would have been E5 million. King said that without HD, the BBC would be looking at a 1.5 hours, not 11. There will be 35mm and Super 35mm used on “Planet Earth,” but 75 percent will be shot on HD, and King said a mix of the Sony and Panasonic formats were being used. He added that the big benefit for producers over film is being able to check the rushes in the field.

The Hospital’s audio system includes a Solid State Logic Aysis Air Plus console with surround sound monitoring, Genelec speakers and a Dolby multichannel audio tool.

David Klafkowski, technical director of the Farm Group, advised caution when selecting HD formats for production. He outlined a number of nightmare scenarios in which producers had selected particular HD formats to shoot on, for no clear practical reason, and left themselves with long and expensive remedial procedures in post. He said that a prime example is the co-producers demanding productions be shot in 24p. Often, they don't know why they want to do it that way — it's become a fashion. For the specific things they want to shoot, many times it is not the best way to go, and it can lead to serious problems in post-production.

At an all-day seminar held by the Royal TV Society Thames Valley division in December 2004, it was emphasized that getting a commitment from UK broadcast regulator Ofcom to make spectrum available for HD services was a priority.

Can HD wait until 2012? asked Brendan Slamin, of the HD Forum. He said that with the growth of the large-screen market, HD production and consumer HD in the form of cam-corders and DVDs, the industry needs helpful regulation and spectrum for HD over digital terrestrial.

He outlined the key problem of spectrum scarcity for terrestrial transmissions, but analog switch off could make enough spectrum available to allow for two or three new terrestrial multiplexes with 80 percent coverage of the UK. At bit rates of 6Mb/s to 8Mb/s, there could be three HD program channels per multiplex, nine in all, Slamin said.

However, there was still the problem that the market for HD in Europe could move faster than DTT could cope with. Slamin said the situation to be avoided in the UK is becoming an island of standard definition in an HD world. The release of spectrum in the UK for HD after a possible analog switch-off in 2012 was not guaranteed. He said that the release of such spectrum is unlikely before 2012, and negotiations for the use of the spectrum are due to begin in 2006. Therefore, clear requirements for HD, and how it will be used, need to be made by March 2005, with supporting technical requirements. He said that we need to engage with Ofcom very quickly on this.

EBU technical director Phil Laven said it was likely that displays and set-top boxes in Europe would allow for both 720p and 1080i reception, so broadcasters would be able to choose which format they supported. But Laven wanted the 60Hz standards to be offered alongside 50Hz in order to extend the choice. He felt it could be too late for broadcasters to wait until 2012 before beginning HD transmissions. He suggested that satellite might well prove the best option for HD to the home, given HD would clearly be a fixed reception proposition.

Laven said that it seems more sensible to deliver HD by satellite, especially with 50 percent better use of the spectrum using DVB-S2. He thinks the front-runner for HD will be satellite.

It had always been assumed that it would be the mobile phone industry that took any spare spectrum available after analog switch-off, although the massive overspend for 3G spectrum somewhat dented this view. Now, the mobile industry looks set to come back with renewed optimism for spectrum with the launch of video via mobile phones, using the recently agreed DVB-H specifications. Some in the mobile industry believe DVB-H could emulate the success of SMS messaging in capturing the public imagination. At the very least, DVB-H could present serious competition to HD when it comes to allocating spare spectrum.

There is also the possibility that HDTV will reach the consumer without using any over-the-air transmission. The BBC trialed online HD, delivered via ADSL as part of the trial of its interactive media player (IMP) during 2004, and was pleased with the results. There have been reports that the BBC might begin an HD service via satellite in 2006, to coincide with the next soccer World Cup. It is also possible that an HD service downloaded via ADSL could begin by 2006, received by an IMP-like device.

That may be speculation, but HD via ADSL will soon become a commercial reality, according to Roger Lynch, chief executive of Video Networks. Speaking at an Informa HD summit in December, he confirmed that HD was definitely possible over ADSL, and it was on Video Networks' agenda.

He said that using MPEG-4 in 2005, the company will be doing multiple SD streams to the home, and the arrival of ADSL2+ (G.992.5) will double the bandwidth it can use. That makes HD into the home, even multiple streams of HD, possible.

Concluded Simon Fell, controller of emerging technology at UK broadcaster ITV, the home consumer will see HD before the broadcaster does; it will arrive through the Internet

Nick Radlo is an independent technology correspondent.